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Unique Types of Mentoring for Diverse Groups in the Military.

The U.S. military, which may presently be a microcosm of U.S. business into the 21st century, has unique problems with mentoring, particularly with women and minorities. This article describes several mentoring variations the military has devised and explores how these ideas may be adapted to the business environment.


The U.S. military is perhaps the largest and most diverse organization in the world. With about 1.4 million men and women in uniform, the U.S. military, for example, is over 20% African-American (almost twice the U.S. population percentage). Moreover, 44% of the women in the military are minorities [6]. Further, men and women are guaranteed equal pay for the same rank and service time. In addition, there are tens of thousands of different jobs in the military, each requiring a different skills mix. Indeed, the present composition and corresponding personnel policies of the military may be an indicator of what U.S. companies may look like in the 21st century.

The 21st century will also have profound effects on the military as well as on business. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines will face the mission of rapid team response to limited and focused outbreaks throughout the world [21]. This complex, uncertain, and potentially life threatening response capability will require highly diversified technical skills, team-oriented skills, and interpersonal abilities in the members of the various military services.

In such an environment mentoring will be an important means of acquiring and maintaining this crucial skill mix. Indeed, military studies find that most successful officers have had mentors who serve the various functions of role model, advisor, and motivator [7]. The military, however, provides unique challenges to mentoring. This article looks at these special problems and then examines various solutions the military has devised for these problems. Finally, we explore several ideas that organizations in the business world may adopt to improve their mentoring efforts.

Unique Problems for Mentoring in the Military

Diversity can mean many things-gender, race, ethnicity, seniority, religion, personality, interests, and skill mixes [3]. One unique type of diversity in the military is its rank structure. There is a definite status difference between officers and enlisted personnel. Further, senior officers operate in different circles than junior officers, and junior enlistees are separated from noncommissioned officers (NCOs). These rank structures require different types of mentors at different levels. Moreover, the rank hierarchy makes initial close contact between potential mentors and proteges difficult.

Diversity in terms of race and ethnicity is also well established in the military. Indeed, the military was the first social institution integrated in the U.S. in 1948 by Executive Order No. 9981 of President Truman. There are still issues involving race and ethnicity, however. For example, African Americans commissioned as officers in ROTC units from predominately white universities find mentors among white officers more easily than do African Americans commissioned from historically black colleges and universities [1]. Latinos, on the other hand, prefer military mentors who understand their culture and extended family orientation [12].

While many white male officers and NCOs report they have had mentors, fewer African American and Latino military personnel report that they have had the same opportunity [5,11]. Moreover, female officers report fewer mentors than male officers [23], although a study of Navy nurses found most had mentors [18]. Perhaps because most of the Nurse Corps is female, more female mentors may be available.

Women face the unique problem that they are barred from many combat roles in the military services. As these roles may be crucial to significant career advancement, women may be missing some important opportunities to reach senior positions in the military. In particular, women may be largely left out of the opportunity to be mentored in combat situations.

Besides diversity issues, the military environment itself makes mentoring difficult for most of its members. Frequent changes of station, many times every two to four years, make extended mentoring relationships difficult. The option of retirement after 20 years (or even less) of military service removes potential mentors from the system.

Solutions to Mentoring Problems in the Military

Faced with various problems due to its diverse membership as well as its unique environment, the military services have developed a number of techniques for providing the basic functions, even when the traditional type of mentor is not available. Their situation finds its ancient roots in the classic story of the Odyssey. The very first mentor in Western Civilization was a trusted friend of Odysseus named Mentor, who was supposed to look after Odysseus' son Telemachus while Odysseus was away in the Trojan War. In actuality, most of Telemachus' guidance came from Athena, the goddess of wisdom who was also the warrior goddess, who frequently came to Telemachus disguised as Mentor. Thus, the very first alternative mentoring occurred within a military setting, and that alternative mentor was a woman! Given the shortage of mentors for women in today's military, the irony is apparent.

Mentoring Alternatives for the Military

The military services (Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines) have experimented with several types of mentoring alternatives in order to deal with the unique problems that mentoring can present in the military environment

Peer Mentors. One successful solution for the military is to employ peer mentors. The civilian literature recognizes that peers may serve as partial mentors, supplying information, feedback, or social support [16]. The military has taken this concept further with the sponsor program. A new officer arriving at a unit is assigned a sponsor, usually of similar rank but with more time at the unit. The sponsor can assist with orientation of the individual to the base or post and securing housing on or off base. Further, the sponsor can introduce members of the unit and help with obtaining resources to start the job.

Surrogate Mentors. For enlistees, senior NCOs can serve as surrogate mentors. Young enlistees must learn fairly quickly what are appropriate behaviors (e.g., following orders and puffing the team above the individual) and inappropriate behaviors (e.g, insubordination and puffing the individual above the team) in order to succeed in the military environment. Mentors, particularly for some minorities (as well as some whites), can mean the difference between learning to work within the military culture or continuing to fight against the military system and eventually having to deal with the military justice system.

The Marines have perhaps the most rigorous training of their people. In order to bridge the gap between the very grueling basic training (The Crucible) and then assignment to a combat unit, the Marines use the unit supervisors as mentors for the recruits. As basic training closes, the supervisors meet with the recruits who will be their new assignees. They discuss what has transpired, share their own experiences, give feedback on performance, and discuss their future positions in the unit [17].

Army warrant officers, who fill a unique niche between NCOs and commissioned officers, use several technologies in their mentoring. There is a video of warrant officer duties. Recent warrant officer school graduates brief newcomers to the school. There are available, of course, Army documents and regulations on leadership, communication skills, career development, and personnel evaluation. Finally, there is a warrant officer Web page that contains personnel data and information updates [24].

Team Member Mentoring. Much of the military mission centers around combat, support, and staff teams that are diversified not only in gender, race, and ethnicity, but also in job specialty and technical skill mix. Combat scenarios, rapid resupply of combatants, weapons systems operation, air crew performance, and medical crises require fast acting high performance teams. Military research shows that the success of such high performance teams depends upon team mentoring concepts, such as structured feedback to individuals from their team members. In high performance situations, like combat, team members must cooperate closely. Consequently, team members are extensively trained to ask questions rapidly and provide quick answers on mission status, resource availability, and required assistance. In crisis situations, team members must be trained to supply each other feedback on task errors and procedural omissions. In essence, effective feedback must focus on rapid communication among members, knowledge of teammat es' reactions to various situations, and quick decision making [21].

Team members can also give each other feedback about problems occurring during group processes. Such feedback can lead to diagnoses of problems and corrective improvement termed guided team self-correction. Moreover, this technique can lead to shared expectations and understanding that is necessary for coordinating team efforts among the diverse cross-functional members of many military teams [2].

Speciality Advisor. All of the services have specialized support personnel,

such as physicians, lawyers, nurses, engineers, and chaplains, who need special guidance for career development. The Navy has developed the specialty leader for this task. This is a senior individual in the field, known and respected by many, who may be appointed by the director of the specialty corps (i.e., Medical Service Corps or Nurse Corps) or elected by the membership of the corps. The specialty advisor is an intermediary among four constituencies: the individual, specialty corps, the Navy community, and the detailer (or job assignment officer). The specialty leader serves as advisor for individuals. At times they serve as their lobbyist and liaison among the various constituencies in personnel matters. They also help match individual skill mixes with unit needs for the specialty corps, and they assist the detailer in assigning jobs within the Navy [14].

Professional Group Mentoring. All of the services draw upon the numerous military associations as a source of information and interpersonal support. Some of these organizations focus on individual units (e.g., Army regimental associations), some on the services themselves (e.g., Air Force Association), and some on special groups (e.g., Woman Officers Professional Association (WOPA), National Naval Officers Association, and ROCKS, an association of African American officers) [19]. ROCKS was named after Brig. Gen. Roscoe Cartwright, an African American soldier nicknamed "Rock," who tried to help African American junior officers get a good start in the military. The ROCKS organization raises money for scholarships and serves as a source of mentors for cadets in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in historically black colleges and universities. In short, ROCKS tries to serve as a model of black leadership for African American junior officers [8].

The retired military associations may link retirees to active military personnel. Many of these retirees are still relatively young and associate strongly with the military. This is also a potential pool of mentors for women and minorities.

Virtual Mentors. Finally, the Internet can provide virtual mentors for the military [13]. Many of these associations have Web pages that supply information and links to resources. They may also provide e-mail assistance and chat rooms for individuals who want information or simply want to talk about issues. Because most military personnel have access to computers, the Internet may be a source for mentoring information and social support for minorities and women.

The Internet can also support the mentoring circle, where several mentors and proteges carry on a round table discussion of career issues [15]. The advantage of this technique is the synergy that may develop as proteges see what situations others have faced and listen to how various mentors reflect on these issues. More in-depth questions as well as deeper insights may accrue. The Internet through chat rooms and news groups can bring together large numbers of potential mentors and proteges for the purpose of sharing experiences and ideas.

Military Concepts that May be Applied to the Business World

While the military may provide a unique and challenging environment for mentoring, several of their mentoring ideas can be readily adapted to the business world, particularly for helping minorities and women. Indeed, equal opportunity for all employees may imply that every employee has access to some type of mentoring experience [20].

Peer Mentors. Businesses are investing heavily in hiring highly competent men and women and majority and minority individuals and then training them to use increasingly complex and rapidly changing technology. Insuring these individuals start on a positive note with the company is thus important for retaining this large investment in training. Peer sponsors could be cultivated to help with relocation of new hires, introduction to important persons in the organization, help with finding resources, and then assistance with socialization into the organization.

Team Mentoring. Team mentoring is also a viable concept. Business organizations are making increasing use of quality improvement teams, project teams, and self-managed teams that emphasize diversity and job cross-funtionality in their makeup. Team member feedback can be an important component in building cohesive, effective teams. In fact, teams can provide a sense of identity that can enhance the self-esteem of individual team members. Team members can also provide insight into training needs and the ongoing learning processes of individuals and the team as a whole [15]. In addition, they can provide perspectives on diagnosing process shortcomings, solving problems, finding scarce resources, and dealing with difficult customers.

Speciality Advisor. The specialty advisor idea can benefit the retention and growth of professional employees, such as human resource managers, lawyers, accountants, and engineers. Specialty advisors can serve several functions: a source of expert information on career development and change in the field, personal advisors on career problems, recommending training to remain current, and serving as intermediaries between individuals and organizations on professional issues, such as ethics and career enhancement opportunities [14]. This may be particularly relevant for attracting and keeping women and minorities in highly marketable professional areas.

Surrogate Mentors. With the Baby Boomers poised to start retiring in the next 10 years, there will soon be a large number of retirees who may serve as surrogate mentors, particularly for women and minorities. Organizations might consider hiring them as part-timers or consultants to help train and develop employees. These retirees have a vast store of knowledge and experience that they can share with present employees. In fact, recent retirees may possess a significant portion of the corporate memory for locating scarce resources, solving problems, dealing with crises, and handling difficult customers.

Professional Organizations. Professional groups, such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accounting (AICPA) for accountants and American Society for Quality (ASQ) for quality specialists, may act as group mentors [9]. A study of a health care professional organization found that its members saw the organization serving four basic mentoring functions: role modeling for career development, networking, inclusion/belonging for support, and psychosocial support [4].

Virtual Mentoring. Finally, many of these mentoring alternatives can use the Internet for information and access to important people for individuals. Specialty advisors can interact via e-mail. Retirees could also use e-mail. A good example is the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) that provides the expertise of retired managers to small business and entrepreneurs facing the many challenges of starting out. The SCORE Web page contains satellite conferences and e-mail counseling on business problems [22].

Professional organizations can provide informational linkages to members. In addition, some have experimented with mentoring circles in the form of Internet chat rooms. For example, there is the Mentor Circle in Canada where young business persons can leave a message about a business problem in a chat area Answers will be provided by online mentors [25]. In addition, the Internet may allow diverse individuals to participate in mentor circles where they may learn how to listen to other opinions, reflect on their own positions, and set aside their own positions in order to understand others [15].

The Internet can also provide mentoring functions for minorities and women. One example is MentorNet - a Dartmouth College program for mentoring women students in the sciences. MentorNet provides e-mail connections among women scientists in professional organizations and companies. Mentors can answer questions on career issues as well as offer advice concerning unique problems that women scientists face [10].


Diversity, whether in the military or civilian business world, includes many factors: race, ethnicity, gender, age, seniority, and skill mix. Businesses in the 21st century will have an increasingly diverse workforce. This workforce will require continuous guidance, personal support, and career development to keep up with an increasingly complex technology, an increasingly competitive global business environment, and highly diversified customer bases. Moreover, equal opportunity for all may imply that some type of mentoring experience be available for each individual. Mentoring is thus a good idea for everyone. The military, which already contains a highly diverse population of members, has successfully implemented a number of mentoring alternatives to assist its people. Businesses may well want to consider the military's alternative approaches as they face the coming millennium.


Stephen B. Knouse, Ph.D.

Stephen B. Knouse, Ph.D., is the Alvin and Patricia Smith Professor and Head, Department of Management of the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He was formerly a personnel psychologist (captain) at the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory and taught at Penn State University. His research interests are in diversity management, quality management, and human resource management. He has written Hispanics in the Workplace, The Reward and Recognition Process in Total Quality Management, and Human Resources Management Perspectives on TQM: Concepts and Practices.

Schuyler C. Webb, Ph.D.

Schuyler C. Webb, Ph.D., Commander, U.S. Navy, is the Deputy Director of the Directorate of Research at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. He has previously served various research positions in the Navy Medical Service Corps. His areas of research are diversity management and military equal opportunity.

The opinions presented here are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Defense.


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Author:Knouse, Stephen B.; Smith, Alvin; Smith, Patricia; Webb, Schuyler C.
Publication:Review of Business
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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